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Monkey: Journey to the West
There are many enticing offerings to choose from at the Lincoln Center Festival, but if you are into experiencing a contemporary Chinese opera created in a gently westernized vein then Monkey: Journey to the West may be just the ticket. There is more than monkey business, although there is lots of that, in this spectacular, reality cartoon re-telling of the classic 100 chapter Chinese novel first published in 1592.
Based on a myth that dates back seven hundred years to the Tang Dynasty, the story depicts the adventures of a carefree, destructive, rude and unruly Monkey King who, upon learning that all things die, goes on a quest for the secret of immortality. To attain this, he must first become the disciple of a young monk Tripitaka who has been given the task of retrieving the sacred Buddhist sutras. They are aided and abetted on their journey by such odd fellow travelers as Pigsy, a lustful Daoist Sage; Sandy, a general who eats river travelers as a diversion; and a Dragon Prince transformed into a horse. That's enough to know about the story.
This marks a return to the Festival for Monkey's English composer Damon Albarn since his 2008 appearance headlining Damon Albarn & the Honest John's Revue. But the Grammy Award winning songwriter and singer is continuing the form he embraced with the opera Dr Dee that premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2011. Mainly known as the primary composer of the alternative rock band Blur, Albarn has scored the text by Chen Shi-Zheng (who also directs) with an ear for bridging the East and the West, heavy on the percussion, light on the tinkles and stingy with anything resembling a memorable tune or aria. Although some arias are sung on-stage, most of the singing is done by an off-stage chorus.
As anticipated from advance reports, it is the visual concept, animation and costumes by Jamie Hewlett (best known for creating with Albarn the English pop band Gorillaz) that delight. The visual feasting sees us through the occasional dull spots in the narrative (in Mandarin) and the projected supertitles (in English) consisting mainly of overly florid bits of philosophical and existential gobbledygook.
In general, the pacing of the show, with lengthy lulls between the nine scene changes, could have been speeded up. But the graceful aerial choreography by AntiGravity/Caroline Vexler and the martial arts choreography by Zhang Jun save the day for this action-adventure saga.
More indebted to the graphic presentational design style of the popular 1970's manga hero than with keeping faith with the famous four hundred year-old pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk, Monkey: Journey to the West is basically focused on keeping in step with a corps of contortionists and acrobatic performers adept at martial arts, aerial stunts, balancing and juggling. They are the center pieces of the opera's nine scenes in which Monkey (played alternately by Wang Lu and Cao Yangyang, not clear who played the at the preview performance I attended) travels by air, land and under the sea in his search for enlightenment at the feet of Buddha in Paradise. For all of his prowess, Monkey's antics seem to rely a bit too heavily on the scratching of his privates both front and back and with screeching "hoo-hoo" and "ha ha" whenever he gets the best of his opponents with his magic sword.
Monkey's formidable opponents, most of whom take to the air as well as to their weaponry with remarkable mastery, grace and agility. They include a gang of ferocious flesh-eating White Skeleton Demons, a fearsome Spider Woman and her sisters, and a fiery Dragon Princess among such just slightly less hostile creatures as a troupe of high flying fairies. If the stunts on the ground and in air seem a bit tame in the light of the more daring ones pulled off by the Cirque du Soleil, they are designated to be less a diversion than an integral part of the story.
Look and listen hard and you'll see that this is the physically empowering, philosophically enriching, and spiritually enlightening journey taken by a "hooligan" Monkey that eventually earns him his divinity alongside Buddha. The moral: If a monkey can do it, so can you. No need to think too much about those facets. You can simply enjoy the circus atmosphere and the cartoon sensibility that flows heroically through Monkey: Journey to the West.
The show is making a belated debut in New York. It was previously presented at the Spoleto Festival USA in 2008 following its premiere in 2007 at the Manchester International Festival in England with subsequent engagements in Paris and London. Because of the production's size, the length of its stay and number of performances, it is considered the center piece of the Lincoln Center Festival.